The Government Lifted Its Ban on Creating Deadly Super Viruses
A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lifted a three-year moratorium on experiments involving deadly viruses. Prior research in this field has included influenza, SARS, and MERS – three highly infectious pathogens many fear could mutate into pandemic super-viruses.
The ban on studying these germs came between 2011 and 2012 when scientists intentionally created a new version of H5N1, or bird flu virus, enabling it to spread between ferrets. This testing raised many eyebrows in the medical community generating concern that a highly contagious virus could have been accidentally created causing a global pandemic.
The lift on the moratorium will still require extensive oversight from government review panels on individual studies, but slip-ups at the Centers for Disease Control in the past have left some worrying whether the ban’s lift is a good idea.
In 2014, the CDC accidentally exposed dozens of workers to anthrax and mailed a deadly sample of bird flu to a lab that requested an inactive strain. Smallpox samples were also found at the National Institutes of Health that had been stored in a freezer and forgotten for half a century.
Proponents of the relax on the ban think it will help scientists discover ways to prevent the outbreak of future pandemics, but no previous research has led to any viable solutions.
The research has, however, worked to create something called a gain-of-function mutation that creates viruses with the ability to spread easier. In order to study highly contagious pathogens, they must create infectious pathogens; an incredibly risky experiment with no guaranteed return.
Aside from the prospect of an artificial super-virus leaking from a lab and infecting the masses, there’s always the possibility of a virus falling into the wrong hands and being weaponized by bio-terrorists.
Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Control, is concerned with maintaining security around the discovery of information surrounding artificial super-viruses. Osterholm said that if a study found ways to genetically modify Ebola as an airborne pathogen, he wouldn’t want the public to have access to that information.
Is it really necessary to lift a ban on this field of study, when it hasn’t produced significant findings in the past?
Scientists currently supporting the green-light on gain-of-function studies say concerns are blown out of proportion, and that the combination of safety measures and scientists’ will of self-preservation are strong enough to prevent an outbreak. But does its clumsy precedent really support this?